TITLE: Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2)
AUTHOR: Nnedi Okorafor
GENRE: Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
PUBLISHED: October 3, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Despite my lack of faith in the current crop of young adult books currently out on shelves, I have realised it is still possible to find amazing stories in that particular genre as long as I do some very careful and judicious sifting to separate the gold from the dross.
Among the authors whose stories I find utterly compelling and completely enthralling is Nnedi Okorafor. I read Akata Witch, the first novel in the series of the same title, six years ago, and have been eagerly awaiting the sequel since. And the wait was definitely worth it, because Akata Warrior, the second book in the series, not only lives up to the story and world presented in Akata Witch but builds on it in the best possible way.
Akata Warrior picks up about a year and a half after the events of Akata Witch. Sunny Nwazue is settling well into her dual life: ordinary schoolgirl by day, and Free Agent of Leopard Society by night (and also on weekends). Like her friends Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, she has started on the more intense, serious aspects of her education in the ways of Leopard Society, which is turning out to be both challenging and rewarding. Sunny is more aware than ever that her life is changing - and that she’s going to have to learn how to roll with it, if she wants to thrive.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the apocalyptic vision she saw in a candle flame: a city wreathed in smoke. Sunny used to think that it was a sign of the end-times coming, but it turns out it’s not so simple as that. And in order to find the real answers to her questions, Sunny and her friends will have to find their strengths, gather their gifts, and face down an enemy that could wipe all humanity out for good.
The first thing the reader will notice about Akata Warrior is that it does the reader the courtesy of having a “refresher chapter”: kind of like the short introductions in TV shows that remind the viewer of what happened in a previous episode or season. The opening chapter summarises the events of the first novel, as well as crucial worldbuilding elements that the reader will need to keep in mind for the story proper. It also does so with a charming insouciance I find utterly delightful:
Juju cartwheels between these pages like dust in a sandstorm. We don’t care if you are afraid. We don’t care if you think this book will bring you good luck. We don’t care if you are an outsider. We care that you read this warning and are thus warned. This way, you have no one to blame but yourself if you enjoy this story.
This cheeky nod to the magical quality of good storytelling made me smile when I read it, especially since I can easily imagine how a properly curious and contrary reader of any age would only be driven to continue reading despite the above warning, precisely because he or she was warned against continuing in the first place.
(On a more serious note, I also wish that more authors would do their readers the service of including just such a chapter in their books. It will make it so much easier for readers who are excited to read the latest volume in their favourite series but don’t quite have time to reread previous volumes in order to refresh their memories.)
After that chapter, the reader is launched into the story itself, which opens on a scene describing an argument between Sunny and Sugar Cream about Sunny’s cooking skills (or lack thereof, in Sugar Cream’s opinion). In that short exchange it is made clear to the reader that Sunny has grown since the last time we saw her: grown not only physically, but also in terms of personality and her sense of self. That she can argue with Sugar Cream, of all people, and then attempt to prove her wrong (or right, as the case may be, since Sunny has some conflicting feelings about her ability to prepare tainted pepper soup) is a clear indication of just how comfortable she has become with her status as a Free Agent and the two worlds she now inhabits, and that she has come quite a ways along her education and development as a Leopard Person.
But with this increased development and growth comes an equal increase in the level and danger of the conflicts Sunny must deal with. In the previous novel, Sunny had to negotiate Leopard Society and a deadly magic-wielding murderer, but in this novel the stakes are much higher - and much closer to home.
I say “closer to home” because, in this novel, Sunny’s involvement in Leopard Society spills over onto her immediate family. I will not explain what happened, since doing so would be giving away spoilers but suffice to say that they are entangled, partly because of external forces, but mostly because of Sunny herself doing something she most definitely was not supposed to do. And while such rebelliousness is to be expected of protagonists of Sunny’s age and capabilities, what stands out is that Sunny does not escape punishment the way certain other protagonists in similar YA fantasy series seem to do. Not even Sugar Cream, who occupies a high position in Leopard Society, bails her out of it; indeed, it is Sugar Cream who hands down Sunny’s sentence and enforces it:
“… You two were given a pass for what you did. But then you crossed the line. You let your rage get the best of you.”
Sunny looked down, frowning. I don’t care, she thought. She knew if she had it all to do again, she’d do the same thing. … Sugar Cream knew this, too.
“With great power comes great responsibility, Sunny,” Sugar Cream said. “You’re young. You’re a free agent who knows very little, but who is bursting with potential and passion. You’re not the best or the smartest of your age mates, but you are…interesting. This is why I took you on. But you need to learn control.” She took a sip of her coffee. “And you need to learn the consequences.”
And learn them Sunny does. Sugar Cream does not protect her from the consequences of her actions, entirely aware that this, too, is a lesson: a necessary one.
This is such a pleasant change for me to read about because it is sometimes easy to forget that young people are generally able to distinguish right from wrong on their own, using their own reasoning and logic to perceive the difference. This “age of reason” is generally defined as age seven, with some wiggle room for the more or less precocious and those with mental handicaps. Of course, a child’s upbringing and previous education will have a great deal of bearing upon how he or she defines certain things as right or wrong, but by that age he or she is capable of understanding the difference between the two, and can be taught that difference in finer nuance.
Since she is in her early teens, Sunny is already old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, both in the world of Lambs and in Leopard Society. When she does the thing that gets her punished, she does so knowing that, in all likelihood, she must suffer the consequences. And yet, despite knowing this, despite knowing that she will have to pay the price later on, she goes ahead and does it anyway. This is completely unlike the Sunny the reader is familiar with, who, while not a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to following the rules, does not so flagrantly flout them either.
But Sunny has a very good reason:
…[Sasha] looked at Sunny and smiled. “[Chichi] told us everything. I’d have done the same thing, no matter the consequences. That’s family, yo. Always gotta protect the fam.”
In the previous novel Sunny’s relationship with her family was not given much attention, but in this novel that relationship is explored and developed further. Sunny’s irritation at her brothers and her father is not without reason, but that does not mean she will let any harm come to them if she can help it. They are important to her, they are family, and she loves them despite their flaws and the way they treat her sometimes. Even better, her relationship with her brothers actually develops a little further in this novel, moving away from the childishness of their previous connection and becoming something more stable, more mature - something which, I am sure, will play a vital role in the upcoming books of this series.
And speaking of family, another aspect of that is vital to Sunny’s development: her connection to her maternal grandmother. This connection is developed via a special book written in Nsibidi that Sunny is trying to master because she wants to be able to read the letter her grandmother left behind. By learning how to read Nsibidi (which is an actual Nigerian writing system with a long history) so she can read her grandmother’s letter and learn what it contains, Sunny is bringing together the past (both cultural and personal) in the present so that she can move forward into the future.
This theme of how the past can help build a connection to the future is probably the theme that runs most consistently throughout this novel, though it is presented in various ways. Sunny’s case has already been mentioned, but in the case of some characters, it means letting go of the past so that they can move forward into the future. For others, it can mean remembering what was once forgotten. Either way, understanding the past helps build a path towards the future, and those who forget that are doomed to repeat their mistakes.
Another theme that runs throughout the course of the novel is tied to Sunny’s connection to her spirit face, Anyanwu. One of the major plot points in the novel sees Sunny’s connection to Anyanwu tested in the extreme, but that trial forges Sunny into a stronger person as she learns to accept a key tenet in Leopard Society: what makes a person different is also what gives him or her strength. Sunny has long struggled to accept the many different facets of her identity, and this novel shows the beginnings of her acceptance of those facets. There are moments, even at the end, when she still doubts herself, but that’s all right; Sunny is still young, after all, and she still has a lot to learn. She still has time.
Though Sunny is the primary focus of this novel, her friends grow along with her, as well. Their connections shift and grow as the story goes on, and not a moment too soon, either: the climax of this novel sees their bonds and faith in each other tested, and there is set-up for something even more arduous in the next novel in the series. I have an immense soft spot for found-family narratives, and it is clear that the oha coven that Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha have formed is a little family unto itself, and I am looking forward to seeing how their bonds are strengthened and tested in the upcoming books.
Overall, Akata Warrior is a worthy follow-up to Akata Witch, taking practically everything that was introduced in the latter and then building upon it in a way that fleshes out everything from the setting to the characters to the themes. The reader sees Sunny’s growth, and the growth of her friends, as they become more aware of their powers and learn how to be more mature, responsible people who understand not only those around them but also (and perhaps more importantly) their own selves. And these lessons come none too soon, because something very big is coming for Sunny and her friends in the next novel; I cannot wait to see what that will be.